Inspired by personal experience with a loved one, husband-and-wife screenwriting partners Inon and Natalie Shampanier take a straightforward and empathetic approach to their story of one woman’s persecutory delusional disorder, or what’s sometimes referred to in lay terms as paranoia. Paper Spiders is a message film, but one that’s spiked with welcome humor, and its excellent cast is led by the reliably compelling Lili Taylor as the afflicted woman, tormented and tormenting, and Stefania LaVie Owen as her smart and sensitive daughter.
The film is concerned with dispelling the shame attached to mental illness, as well as the misguided notion that sufferers have a “personality problem” rather than a medical condition. Unfolding largely through the eyes of the younger woman, Paper Spiders is especially interested in the fallout on those close to the ill person, a wrought friction brought to life in the clash between Owen’s frustrated pragmatism and Taylor’s increasingly unhinged ferocity.
Inon Shampanier’s direction suits the unfussy material, with its young adult perspective and basic-suburban Syracuse setting (though it could have used one less song-fueled montage sequence). He and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein stay close to their characters, employing few visual flourishes, with two key exceptions. One is an apt approximation of a teenager’s first experience of booze-and-pot overindulgence. The other is the pair of images that bookend the story: rhyming overhead shots that encapsulate the progression from vague gloom to an educated and encouraging, if hardly rose-colored, openness.
As the movie opens, the widowed Dawn (Taylor) is a perpetual worrier, one whose hypervigilance might be chalked up to anxiety over impending empty-nest syndrome. On a tour of USC, where her 17-year-old daughter, Melanie (Owen, of the recently canceled Netflix series Messiah), hopes to enroll as a premed student, Dawn foresees every possible disaster.
In the emotional shorthand of their banter on the cross-country flight back home, the closeness between mother and daughter is evident. But upon their return to their comfortable home, Dawn has a run-in with their new neighbor that quickly turns into an obsession, and Melanie finds herself looking at Mom’s quirky behavior from a new perspective: alarm. Certain that the (unseen) neighbor is trying to break into their home, Dawn reports him to the police, gets a restraining order against the “psychopath” and tries to enlist the help of the long-suffering attorney (David Rasche) for whom she works.
The quiet exasperation of Rasche’s character suggests that Dawn’s downward spiral has been ongoing, and not the sudden descent that Melanie thinks it is. But even with graduation to plan for and a new, complicated love interest (Ian Nelson) in her life, the hardworking salutatorian can’t ignore the multiplying red flags on the home front. Her first step is to seek the advice of the well-meaning but ill-equipped school guidance counselor (Michael Cyril Creighton). Had the awkwardness of his rote responses been played any broader, his exchanges with Melanie would have stopped the movie cold, but Creighton finds the right balance of sincerity and ineptitude to leaven the information-delivery aspects of his scenes.
Another welcome touch of humor arrives with the contrast between two reluctant first dates. On the same evening that BMW-driving rich kid Daniel (Nelson) takes the skeptical Melanie to the fanciest joint in town, Dawn goes to a casual-dining chain restaurant with divorced working guy Howard (Tom Papa). The latter connection, made through the online dating profile that Melanie created for her, is a naively hopeful attempt to substitute a social life for Dawn’s fixation on their neighbor.
Among the adults and in the YA-soap aspect of the story — which involves Melanie’s avowedly promiscuous best friend (Peyton List) — all the characters are more conflicted than they at first seem. The screenplay and Nelson’s performance find nuances that transcend the troubled-bad-boy clichés wafting around Daniel. Max Casella delivers wry asides and small-town swagger as the private investigator hired by Dawn to prove her ever-expanding conspiracy theory, a character who unexpectedly turns out to be a friend in need to Melanie, offering practical help and words of hard-won advice.
In Dawn’s rages and in the wordless shifts of attention that play across her face, Taylor makes her mounting distress fully felt. Owen counters that inward intensity with an open-hearted earnestness, making Melanie’s dilemma all the more moving — the responsibility she must shoulder and the momentous decisions she’s forced to make at such a young age. Paper Spiders doesn’t suggest that it’s an easy feat to help someone with Dawn’s condition, and there’s nothing simplistic about the hope and understanding it offers.
Venue: Dances With Films
Production companies: Cranium Entertainment, Idiot Savant Pictures
Cast: Lilli Taylor, Stefania LaVie Owen, Peyton List, Ian Nelson, David Rasche, Max Casella, Michael Cyril Creighton, Tom Papa, Jennifer Cody, Deanna McKinney, Hunter Foster, Susannah Berryman
Director: Inon Shampanier
Screenwriters: Natalie Shampanier, Inon Shampanier
Producers: Ash Christian, Anne Clements
Executive producer: Barry Shy
Director of photography: Zach Kuperstein
Production designer: Bryan Wolcik
Costume designer: Gina Ruiz
Editor: Joe Murphy
Music: Ariel Blumenthal
Casting director: Henry Russell Bergstein